Committing to a Lab

The Biomedical Engineering PhD program at BU uses a rotation program for students to find a lab to do their thesis research in. This means that we spend our first year spending six to eight weeks in a number of different labs to find the best fit. Now, at the end of my first year of grad school, I am going to use this post to reflect on my experience in our rotation program and some thoughts and pieces of advice for future grad students in rotation programs. And, of course, I will end with officially announcing where I have committed to complete my PhD.


Step 1: Picking Rotations

Rotation programs are great because it breaks down the grad school decision of picking a school and picking a mentor into two decisions separated by about a year and gives you options. The bad news is that it gives you options. Picking your rotation PIs is as critical as picking your list of grad schools to apply to because, ultimately, this is the person who you will end up working under for five or six years and whose name you will be tied to professionally in the scientific community in perpetuity. No pressure.

Most of my fellow students in my cohort came in knowing at least one PI they wanted to rotate with because they connected well during our visit weekend. If you are an incoming grad student, there is probably at least one PI you picked the program you did for and so you will probably end up rotating with them first. From there, programs usually have some sort of seminar class in which PIs who are recruiting grad students share their research to generate interest in their groups. Most of the people in my cohort found their other rotation PIs either through our seminar class, by taking their classes, or through word of mouth and found them organically throughout the year.

I, on the other hand, was a bit more directed. I acknowledge the oddity of this approach and chalk it up to my type A, future-focused personality and do not condone it as the best way to go about setting up rotations, but, leaving my interview weekend last spring, I had three great meetings with PIs and knew they were the ones I wanted to rotate with. I contacted them over the summer and came into my first year with my rotations set up.


Step 2: Doing Rotations

When I started my first rotation, I was instructed to look for three things in a lab: fit with the research, fit with the PI, and fit with the lab (i.e. the other people in the lab). This is the framework that I carried with me through each of my rotations.

If your graduate program is structured like most and you are taking classes while also doing your rotations, one thing I would stress is that the goal of your first year is to find a lab home. This applies in that classes, while important, are not the main focus of grad school. Spending as much time in and around your rotation lab will benefit you more in the long run than perfecting that problem set or rereading that paper for the third time. On the other hand, the goal of a rotation is not to do groundbreaking research. When you are spending time with your rotation lab, along with trying out the kind of work you would be doing if you joined that lab, you should also be trying to engage with and integrate into the lab culture as much as possible to really get a sense of what it would be like to join that lab.

Other pieces of advice that I have heard but did not necessarily take advantage of is to go to lab meetings of labs that you will rotate with in the future or have already completed a rotation with. This way, you can keep up to date and in the know on what is going in the lab or feel out part of a lab dynamic before you start working. This will smooth the process of starting a rotation and ultimately joining a lab, especially if it was one you rotated with early in your first year.

I will leave this section with those pieces of advice. I had a wonderful time in all of my rotations here at BU so I’ll just move on to the decision section.


Part 3: Committing to a Lab

In my short experience on this planet, I have found that large life decisions which, to me, seem that they should stem from rigorous and objective criteria, often stem from a gut feeling or subjective nature. This applied to when it came time for me to commit to a lab. There were a few objective criteria like that the lab was actively growing and recruiting, which means there was available funding, that the PI had a fairly hands-on style and was willing to mentor directly at the bench if necessary, and the size of the lab was in the medium range so I would have a community around me while also not being lost in the shuffle. But, at the end of the day, I think I just had a gut feeling that I would work well with the PI of my third rotation. Luckily, when I asked to join, she immediately said yes, and thus I am now I Ph.D. student in the Sgro Lab at BU.


Overall Reflection

I think one benefit of a rotation program is that you get the opportunity to build relationships with the grad students and faculty member not only of the lab that you ultimately commit to but of other labs in the department or on the campus. At a practical level, this could spur some potential future collaborations but also simply lets you build up your professional support network at a new school faster. Life transitions are made more difficult because your support network is pulled out beneath you and having the opportunity to work with and interact with multiple labs on a new campus definitely eased the transition process for me.

Sometimes in a rotation program you may feel a bit listless because you do not have a home or a boss keeping you accountable on a day to day basis, but I think the benefits of connecting with more people throughout the department make up for that. Now that I am committed to a lab, it’s time to strap down and get some work done. Speaking of which, gotta pop over to the bench (i.e. my own bench in my lab!).


Sexism is Alive and Well at BU BME

The BU Biomedical Engineering department hosts four to six department seminars each semester. PhD students are required to attend at least four and many faculty also attend, making them one of the few times during the semester in which a large number of students and faculty in the department are gathered in one place. It is these seminars in which we present the face of the BU Biomedical Engineering department to the larger academic world.

With this context, it frustrates and angers me to be writing about an incident that occurred at our last department seminar. The speaker was Dr. Danielle Bassett from the University of Pennsylvania’s Bioengineering department. Our department scheduled this talk two years in advance because she is in such high demand. Her work lies in the developing field of network neuroscience, a fascinating blend of neuroscience, graph theory, and network dynamics. She has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant, an NSF CAREER Award, and named one of Popular Science’s top 10 brilliant scientists in 2016. The talk was fascinating and Dr. Bassett did an excellent job of walking a bunch of engineers through this interdisciplinary and cutting edge approach to studying the brain. It was when we hit the question and answer session that things went downhill fast.

A few questions in, Dr. Bassett called on a faculty member from the BU BME department, my department. His “question” was a thinly veiled accusation that the field Dr. Bassett described as network neuroscience is not as novel as she had made it seem and that the techniques she described had been used for decades. To be more specific, he referred to her calling the field new and developing as “amusing.” It is also worth noting this faculty member is more on the senior side of the faculty. While I was sitting stunned in my seat that a faculty member made such a disrespectful comment, one that he probably would not have said to a younger male professor in the field, Dr. Bassett took the insult in stride and went on to explain the fields that network neuroscience is newly synthesizing and why this approach is different from the approach of system neuroscientists from the past few decades.

I don’t have to get in to the statistics on female underrepresentation in science. I don’t need to remind you that women drop out of the sciences because they see fewer and fewer women the higher up the academic hierarchy they look and because this lack creates a toxic environment for the few women that are in those upper levels. The “question” was embarrassing for everyone in the room and stained the reputation of our department as a whole. The fact that Dr. Bassett took the question in practiced stride reveals how much she has had to deal with people constantly questioning her ability and intelligence. And this is coming from someone who is literally a MacArthur GENIUS.

As a male in a male-dominated field, I can never know the full extent of discrimination my female colleagues experience, I can only do my best to listen to their experiences, be aware of my own behavior, and work with others to improve our environments to free them of such discrimination. It is worth noting that, so far, I have found the BU BME department to be a welcoming and inclusive environment, which is why this situation stands out so starkly. That being said, last week’s seminar was a disappointing reminder that such sexism is alive and well in the field, including right here at BU. Today, I recommit myself to work to ensure that one day, one of these reminders will be the last.

Are we nature’s guardian species?

I read this article this week about scientists that are trying to engineer new types of coral that are more resistant to heat shock and can make our coral reefs more resistant to the effects of climate change. Rather than diving into the hard science of how they are trying to breed new coral (and how interesting of a project it would to try to reengineer coral from a genomic level), I want to talk about the ethics behind this kind of project and what it says about humanity’s role in nature.

Because what is happening here is that we (humanity) are trying to develop technology to solve a problem (coral reefs dying) that was caused by our own technological advance (massive increase in CO2 output due to the industrial revolution and age of globalization).

Nature adapts and evolves, that’s what it does. There is one mentality that the warming we are causing the planet should be allowed to carry out, no matter how much damage to our global biodiversity it does. Eventually, the warming will kill out the source because we are living unsustainability but some life will survive to go on to start a new age (think of climate change as the new meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving small mammals to repopulate the earth). Humanity (and many more species) will die off, but life will persist at some level.

Now, another mindset to take is that human-directed evolution is simply nature developing a better way to develop itself. In the long view, biological diversity has happened at an exponential pace, starting slow for billions of years and accelerating (with a few blips of extreme extinction and explosions of new species) in the relatively recent years. To keep up, a more complex species has developed a way of making more and different species. This also brings up the idea of coevolution. Humanity’s history of causing genetic modification in the species it interacts with goes back much further than the discovery of DNA and restriction enzymes, it goes all the way back to the agricultural revolution. The species of plants and animals that we domesticated look vastly different from their ancestors. Looking up the origins of many of our fruits and vegetables is wild. You could also think about how many breeds of dogs we have developed over thousands of years of dog domestication. Here’s the thing though: it’s not simply that we are creating new and different species, we have made ourselves dependent on those species and those species dependent on us. Many of our fruits and vegetables could not survive in the wild, they survive because they have adapted as horticultural species and we survive because we have domesticated them. So in a way, you could see something like humans genetically engineering coral to be simply a new iteration in the story of coevolving species around us for mutual benefit.

What this view brings up is the question of ethical responsibility. Are we, as humans who have the ability to modify species around us, now have an obligation to help other species survive to changing conditions that we have caused? Are we some sort of new guardian species that is responsible for maintaining the biodiversity of Earth as we know it? If so, where does this line end? How many species of plants, animals, fungi, fish, birds, bacteria, archaea do we owe it to help survive? And then, even if we tried, there is no way we could work to evolve and maintain every species and every ecosystem on the planet.

So what are we to do? Do we say that what we are doing is just a new environmental selection method and other species need to adapt or die? Do we do our best to help evolve the species that we can? How do we decide what resources and personal to this mission of helping other species survive?

As with most bioethical questions, there are no easy answers and I do not have any, but I do believe in developing options and so I support the work done to help evolve species like coral, especially for the critical role they play in our marine ecosystems.